Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Year in Medieval Art: February

In the calendar of the Medieval Christian year, the feasts of Christmas, the New Year, and the Epiphany, are followed by the far more austere, and, in many cases, even colder, weeks of February. There is just one last element of the story of Christ's birth to be marked, and, interestingly, it is one which frankly recognises the original Jewish context of the story. Candlemas, celebrated on the second day of the month, recalls the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, by Ambrosio Lorenzetti (1342), Uffizi Gallery, Florence (image is in the Public Domain).

Secular imagery associated with this time of the year often depicts the gathering and transport of firewood, and shows people struggling to stay warm indoors. People were heavily reliant on food stored during the autumn: whether grain & flour; cheeses & butter; smoked meats; salted fish; or orchard fruits & root vegetables stored in barrels. Many a family may have been spared from starvation by a supply of cheap and unappetising "red herrings" (smoked and salted for double preservative effect).

The Canterbury Calendar page for February: the man warms his feet and socks by the fire, whilst above him hang smoked sausages and meat (image is in the Public Domain).
Page from the Tripartite Mahzor, a German Jewish manuscript of c 1349 (image is in the Pubic Domain). The fishes represent the passage of the sun into Pisces: Hellenistic and Roman astrological ideas survived in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. 
February, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1412-1416, Musee Conde (image is in the Public Domain). The lady of the house warms herself by the fire, whilst a man outside, probably her husband, cuts wood. A peasant drives his ass or mule towards a nearby town, laden with firewood. The sheep are corralled in the yard, presumably fed on hay, and the ewes heavily pregnant. 
Landscape with bird-trap, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna (image is in the Public Domain). Hunting and trapping birds and small mammals was among the few means that most people had of accessing fresh food in the depths of winter.

Saint Valentine's Day, celebrated on the fourteenth of the month, became associated, in the late Middle Ages, with courtly love, not because the saint himself had any great credentials as a lover (if he existed at all, which many doubt, he was, as Bishop of Narnia, presumably celibate), but because of a story that wild birds begin their courtship in the middle of February. The earliest record of this tradition (and of any association of Saint Valentine's Day with romantic love) is in Geoffrey Chaucer's (1382) Parlement of Foules, although it is possible that he was drawing on earlier folk-beliefs.

" ... this was on seynt Valentine's day,
Whan every foule cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thenke may;
And that so huge a noyse gan they make;
That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake
So ful was, that unnethe was ther space
For me to stonde, so ful was all the place."

The psalter of Bonne of Luxembourg, c 1349, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image is in the Public Domain). Bonne was the mother of Jean, Duc de Berry who commissioned and owned Les Tres Riches Heures. Birds were already a popular subject in art before Chaucer's time, their depiction often based on close observation. Those depicted above are (clockwise from top-left) the green woodpecker; hoopoe; great tit; goldfinch; and wood pigeon (that at bottom left is unclear - possibly a nuthatch). The artists are Jean Le Noir and his daughter, Bourgot, who worked first for Bonne and her husband, Jean, and later for their son, the Duc de Berry.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

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